History: The Land, The People, The House


Fairfield as we know it today, was built by the Atkinson family from 1872-1883. Arthur Samuel Atkinson was a prominent lawyer, active in business and politics. Jane Maria (nee Richmond) was active in the suffragette movement and promoted education for girls. As Unitarians they were progressive thinkers and involved in the cutting edge of early New Zealand politics. Their home was an important centre for the community.

The distinctive tower at the west end of the building was originally built to mount a large telescope to cater for Arthur's hobby of astronomy. The house was lived in by the Atkinson family until 1922 when the property was passed to the fledgling Nelson Girl's College who used it as a prep school and boarding house. From 1930, Nelson Boys College used Fairfield House as a boarding house. Generations of New Zealand youngsters knew it as their home away from home. By 1976 the students had gone to new hostels, a fire had destroyed the accommodation block and the house became derelict. A demolition order was about to be issued by the local city council in 1979.

Saved at the 11th hour

Fairfield House was saved from certain demolition by the actions of Alan Stanton and Friends of Old Fairfield (FOOF). At the eleventh hour, Alan's drastic and bold actions raised regional attention to the plight of Fairfield and a group formed which was dedicated to the restoration and development of Fairfield as a community asset.

Today Fairfield House is once again the pride of Nelson. Community energy continues to develop a centre for the city that is a loved and living venue for corporate, private and public sectors.

Alan Stanton wrote a book about his experiences saving Fairfield.

"Anything is Possible - The Resurrection of Fairfield House" by Alan Stanton 

The Land

Fairfield has a seven acre woodland around the house. This woodland was initially planted by Neil McVicar in the early 1850’s and extensively added to by the Atkinson family in the 1870s.

In addition to saving the house, FOOF has dedicated its energy to maintaining the 7 acre woodland. Old trees have been pruned and heritage trees have been registered. New trees have been planted, and a system of walking tracks has been made through the reserve.  This is open to and is enjoyed by the public.

History of Ownership

1851 - Neil MacVicar (Original Crown Grant)
? - John Blackett
1872 - Arthur Samuel Atkinson
1902 - Jane Maria Atkinson
1914 - Alice Mabel Atkinson
1922 - Nelson College
1979 - Department of Education
1979 - Department of Lands and Survey
1987 - Department of Conservation
1990 - Gazetted Local Purpose Reserve

The People

Arthur Atkinson migrated to NZ with his brother Harry and friends, the Richmond family, in 1852. Arthur married Jane Maria Richmond in 1854. He settled and farmed at Hurworth, Taranaki, with the other members of the Richmond /Atkinson family. He became a Maori translator for the Government and was owner and editor of the Taranaki Herald. He was also active in the Taranaki Wars.

Arthur moved to Nelson in 1868 and studied law. He went into partnership with Charles Y Fell (Nelson Mayor 1882-87) who married Atkinson's daughter Edith. Arthur was a keen amateur astronomer. He was also an arachnologist because of which he was locally nicknamed 'Spider' Atkinson.

The Atkinson family injected a spiritual and forward thinking energy into the house as early as the 1880s. They were free thinkers who championed a number of social causes - the suffragette movement, education for women, and the development of astronomy. All the family were highly politically motivated and active in local and national politics.

Family History

1872 - 1922 Atkinson, Richmond and Fell families.
1922 Nelson College for Girls Prep department
1926 Girl boarders housed in 'Chicken Coop' boarding block built behind house.
1930 - 1964 Boys College take over as Fell House
1979 - 2009 Friends Of Old Fairfield (FOOF) established to save and run Fairfield as Community asset

The House

Prior to 1871 - A two dormer cottage was built.
1872 - Two story wings built on either end of cottage by Atkinsons
1883/4 - Cottage and west wing removed and replaced by present two story addition
with veranda and observatory tower. Designed by Nelson architect A.T. Somerville.
1985 - Registered under Historic Places Act. Now a 'Category 1 Historic Place'.

Family Home to Prep School

(extract taken from 'The School on the Hill' by Karen Price)

By 1920 increases in the school roll meant that Nelson College for Girls had outgrown the existing buildings which had been designated in 1883 for a maximum of 150 pupils. The Nelson College Governors were forced to evaluate options available including the possibility of moving the school to a completely new site. One solution they felt would be to move the boarding department to an adjacent area and in 1920 they inspected the property, owned by the Misses Atkinson at the end of Trafalgar Street, known as "Fairfield."

In 1922 the property was purchased and the "preps" took possession initially. Known as Fairfielders they "enjoyed a warm little family life as well as having all the excitements of trees to climb, chestnuts to gather and roast and dozens of new games to play.


In 1923 when the minister of education assessed the need for additional classrooms at the girls' college as very urgent, a plan was formulated to move the boarding department in entirety to the Fairfield site, so that the vacated dormitory rooms at the school could be used as classrooms.

Following lengthy negotiations and planning, the first block of cubicles was built on the terrace above Fairfield house in 1926. The initial cubicle block was an open-air affair which housed 24 girls and a mistress. The cubicles each held two beds and were separated from each other by a partition. All the cubicles opened onto a wide verandah which was enclosed with wire netting - the wire netting eventually leading to the cubicles being known as the "chicken coops' by the girls.

The Restoration

In 1979 Alan Stanton took the initiative and squatted in the old house to prevent further damage to the property. This action galvanised support from the Nelson community that led to the forming of Friends of Fairfield Inc (FOF). In August 1979, FOF took up the challenge to restore the old house with the vision of making it a community resource.

This was an enormous task, with fundraising, voluntary working bees, community work schemes and training courses all contributing to the effort. Over 500 people have worked on the place over the years and many new skills were taught and learnt in the process. As early as possible Fairfield House began to return gifts to Nelson by hosting functions and events.

Get the book "Anything is Possible - The Resurrection of Fairfield House" by Alan Stanton

Anything is Possible
by Alan Stanton

100% of the proceeds of book sales through this site go directly to Fairfield House.

Friends of Fairfield

All this work bore fruit: In 1990 the Department of Conservation gazetted Fairfield House and the 7 acres of surrounding woodland as a Local Purpose Reserve and appointed FOF to control and manage it. From the imminent demolition and Historic Places Trust classification D, it now has the highest rating "National Heritage Classification 1".

Today, Friends of Fairfield continues to maintain and upkeep Fairfield House through self generated funds, community grants and voluntary work.  If you'd like to support us in this ongoing work, join Friends of Fairfield.

Join Friends of Old Fairfield

Friends of Old Fairfield maintains and develops Fairfield House. You can help by joining or giving a donation.